Michael Mina is low-key as American millionaire celeb-chefs go. He’s got 27 restaurants in the U.S. and a couple of Michelin stars, but no TV show or cookware line: He’s still essentially a restaurateur. PABU Boston, his latest venue (and third partnership with acclaimed chef Ken Tominaga), is a combination sushi bar and izakaya, a Japanese tavern where drinking is the focus but food is served. But because it resides in the posh Millennium Tower, this particular pabu (pub) traffics in rarified foodstuffs, fancy booze and cossetting service. It will run you a pretty penny more than your corner Irish-American joint.
Mina and Tominaga’s local lieutenant, executive chef Ben Steigers, opens his menu with a passel of terrific cold small plates. The “Happy Spoon” ($9) tops a raw oyster with uni, roes of salmon and flying fish, and a dab of ponzu crème fraîche to create a pricey, delectable bite: a gorgeous swirl of ocean tastes and contrasting textures, gone in a moment (but still $7 less than the version at crosstown competitor UNI). Hawaiian-inspired poke is suddenly everywhere, but PABU’s version of ahi tuna poke ($15) is unusual and very good, a firm puck of finely chopped, garlic-laden, sesame-flecked tuna tartare served with wonton chips. Housemade tofu ($11) is starkly lovely, a pale disk nestled in a black ceramic bowl, half-submerged in a pool of lemon soy, artfully streaked with matcha salt and wasabi: subtle and superb.
Hot plates include Tokyo fried chicken “karaage” ($12), crisply batter-fried nuggets of breast meat that a ginger-soy marinade renders juicy, with spicy mayo for dipping. Maine lobster okonomiyaki ($18), a dense lobster fritter topped with finely chopped pork belly, a nest of bonito flakes, a gooey fried egg and chunks of cooked squid, is a brilliant, briny umami bomb. Chawanmushi ($15), savory custard generously dotted with shrimp, scallops and baby shiitakes and topped with salmon roe and a pea tendril, is a treat for fans of puddingy textures. Robatayaki, the charcoal-grilled skewers that are izakaya staples, are uniformly excellent. Crisp-exteriored chicken meatballs ($8) have a saltiness that a raw egg-yolk dip nicely softens, while brittle, translucent chicken skin ($6) stands without help, and beef tongue ($8) reads thin, faintly gamy and tender. Frugal diners wanting to taste real Japanese Wagyu can spring for a single skewer of A5 rib cap ($28), three sublime, finely fat-marbled little chunks of beef served with a card detailing the cow’s lofty pedigree.
PABU’s sushi bar turns out pristine nigiri, sashimi and maki, though with fewer of the imported rarities seen at Boston’s top-flight Japanese places. We particularly liked otoro sashimi (a prettily plated, generous portion for $38) and nigiri of shima aji (striped jack), umimasu (ocean trout), buri (yellowtail belly), sawara (Spanish mackerel) and uni (assortment of six for $38, 10 for $60), as well as an oversized, crunchy futomaki ($10) stuffed with omelet, shiitake, dried calabash strips, spinach and pickled burdock root. There’s also a short high-end steakhouse menu with a la carte sides. Here we again opted for a tiny portion of extravagant steak, Japanese Miyazaki A5 strip loin ($56 for two ounces), which got some smoke and heat from a tabletop charcoal grill and heft from accompanying mustard greens. The short dessert list includes a silky milk-chocolate sesame custard ($12) with cubes of black sesame sponge cake, candied cocoa nibs and red bean ice cream.
As befits an opulent tavern, PABU’s bar offers great breadth in soigné drinking options. Beverage director Dan Grajewski leads with cunningly presented specialty cocktails ($11-$18) like the Eighth Virtue ($11), a fruity sake/vodka concoction served like a big shot in a sake box with a flower garnish, and the similarly easy-drinking “Lip My Stockings” ($13) of pisco, tropical juices, lime and salt, served in a repurposed beer can over crushed ice. Then there are eight beers ($7-$18), eight sakes by the glass ($11-$22), three shochus by the glass ($12-$14) and 15 wines by the glass ($11-$55, most under $16). PABU also boasts Boston’s best selection of Japanese whisky with 24 options ($14-$89, $30 for a flight of three). The sake list offers 66 bottles ($34-$545, most under $100) and a useful glossary, the wine list 81 bottles, with most options under $90 once you exclude some pricey Champagnes.
The space, from the first-floor foyer and elevator to the 53-seat bar/lounge, 89-seat dining room and 11-seat sushi bar, is a marvel of understated, flatteringly lit, austere Japanese design, though the noise level is more self-consciously swinging hotspot than serenely meditative temple. With a little care in ordering, you can rub elbows with DTX’s new fancy people, maybe bump into a local boldface name or two (hey, Bob Kraft!), have a couple of drinks and skewers and get out without denting your credit line too badly. What makes PABU noteworthier than many out-of-town interlopers is its handful of senior staffers recruited from other Mina restaurants, like Steigers, Grajewski, ubiquitous GM Linchul Shin (adding elegant, polished service notes throughout the restaurant) and Mayuka Yatomi (an engaging, helpful sake sommelier). Boston doesn’t need any more cookie-cutter national chain restaurants, but the kind of atmospheric, seamlessly executed luxury experience that PABU delivers, buttressed by the kind of kitchen, bar and hospitality stars that Mina can attract, is a welcome import indeed.
-“Happy Spoon” oyster
-Ahi tuna poke
-Maine lobster okonomiyaki
-Fish nigiri assortment
-Japanese Miyazaki A5 strip loin
Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30 am-2 pm; dinner, Mon.-Thu., 5:30-10 pm, Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 pm; happy hour, Mon.-Fri., 3-6 pm Reservations: Yes Parking: Nearby public and private lots and garages Liquor: Full bar
PABU Boston, 3 Franklin St., Boston (857-327-7228) pabuizakaya.com